Association

New Elections Bill poses a threat to charities campaigning

At the beginning of July 2021, the government introduced a new Elections Bill with the stated aim of ensuring that ‘UK elections remain secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent’. The most significant change is the introduction of a clear mandatory photo ID requirement at polling stations, which has been met with much resistance from civil society groups and parliamentarians. They have warned about the disenfranchisement of millions of citizens, including 3,5 million who do not have access to a photo ID, and 11 million who do not have a passport or driving licence. In a statement, groups said:

“...these proposals will turn polling workers into de facto bouncers – a role they do not want to have, and which raises its own risks of discretion and discrimination. Our democracy is already deeply unequal, with millions missing from the electoral roll, and with major gaps in turnout between groups. We need to be revitalising our democracy – not taking a sledgehammer to political engagement.”

Concerns about the new Elections Bill do not stop there. CSOs Bond, Friends of the Earth and the Sheila McKechnie Foundation raised concerns over the repercussions for charities, with the potential of discouraging them from legitimate activity out of fear of breaking the rules by mistake. In giving evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry into the Electoral Commission, the CSOs raised the following concerns regarding part 4 of the bill:

  • Clause 23 would give the Secretary of State the power to add or remove a description of third-party campaigners from the list of recognised third parties. This would impact who was permitted to incur controlled expenditure during regulated periods.
  • Clause 24 introduces a new lower-tier expenditure limit of £10,000 (11,636 Euros) across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which would potentially require more third-party campaigners to register with the Electoral Commission. However, this new tier would not be subject to all financial controls and could have a significant chilling effect on charities’ campaigning.

Rowan Popplewell, Policy Manager, civic space at Bond said that the fact that “the Electoral Commission can’t tell you with certainty whether an activity is or is not regulated” means that charities are “scared about getting it wrong”. She continued,

“if they don’t get the certainty that they need, they step a long way back from any activity that could even potentially be regulated and that does have a chilling effect.”

Chloe Hardy, Director of Policy and Communications at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, highlighted the “massive strain on civil society organisations' capacity, in terms of time and money and crucially expertise.” She added,

“What we actually have is quite a toxic mix of bad legislation, partial double regulation and divisive rhetoric.

The Bill will return to parliament for its second reading on 7th September 2021.

Police accused of acting “unlawfully” after employees of arts charity are detained in Extinction Rebellion raid

At the end of June 2021, several employees were arrested at the arts and architecture charity Antepavilion in Hackney, London. Two of the charity’s staff and one tenant were detained as part of a “proactive” raid intended to target Extinction Rebellion activists prior to a planned protest. Extinction Rebellion members had been attending workshops on the premises. Eleven arrests were made in total: ten for conspiracy to cause public nuisance and one for dangerous driving. All eleven have been released, ten of whom are facing further investigation. During the operation, police also threatened to dismantle an art installation on the roof of the building that used the same tensegrity technique as used in a protest by Extinction Rebellion. Speaking to ThirdSector, Alanna Byrne, an XR spokesperson, said:

“Why are the police confiscating an art installation? Under what powers are they arresting employees of an art space and people who live in the building? This is a vast overreach of police powers, a major infringement on the lives of those arrested, and suppression of freedom of expression.”

The operation raises serious concerns regarding infringements on freedom of association and expression. It is just one of a series of incidents involving greater police crackdown on environmental activists in the past year (see previous updates).

Government pushes ahead with concerning new immigration plan

In July 2021, the government published their response to the consultation on their ‘New Plan for Immigration’. The plan has been widely criticised by civil society, with the Chief Executive of the British Red Cross stating that proposals are “inhumane”, undermine refugee protection in the UK and make refugees vulnerable to deportation. This triggered criticism from Home Secretary Priti Patel, who told ITV that the comments were “unacceptable” and that organisations should “think carefully about the language they themselves use”. During a short six-week consultation period, the government received over 8,500 responses regarding the new immigration plan. 75% of these respondents stated that they are opposed to many of the policies set out in the New Plan. Whilst the government acknowledged that the majority of respondents were opposed to the proposals, they have decided to press ahead (see page 4 of the response), with many of the proposals already forming part of the Nationality and Borders Bill. The government's response to the consultation has come under criticism from the Refugee Council, who have highlighted that “the views of people who have lived experience of the asylum system appear to have been completely ignored by the government”. The Refugee Council stated that the government’s consultation response fails to address key concerns regarding the lack of ‘safe and legal’ routes of entry to the UK for those fleeing persecution, who may not have access to such routes. The Council also criticises the lack of detail and “short response”, which appears to have failed to meaningfully reflect the responses of the 8,500 submissions. As the government pushes ahead, CSOs remain concerned about the repercussions that the legislation will have on refugees’ rights and the government’s ongoing disregard of the contributions of civil society, and those with lived experience of the asylum system.

Vaccine passports threaten rights and are discriminatory, CSOs warn

Across Europe, governments are rolling out the use of vaccine passports for indoor settings such as cafes, restaurants and leisure centres, but CSOs gave raised concerns on the impact that vaccine passports have on fundamental rights. In the UK, Big Brother Watch has launched a campaign to stop the introduction of vaccine passports, arguing that they are discriminatory, divisive and may constitute the biggest expansion of the surveillance state ever seen in the UK. Human rights CSO Liberty has warned that national vaccine passports will further entrench the structural barriers to accessing the vaccine and that the impact will be felt most significantly by those who have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Madeleine Stone, Legal and Policy Officer at Big Brother Watch said that the policy “is not about public health, it’s about coercion”, highlighting a slim public health reasoning and a “false sense of security”. MPs and peers from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Conservative parties have also signed a pledge in opposition to COVID-19 status certification: "We oppose the divisive and discriminatory use of COVID status certification to deny individuals access to general services, businesses or jobs."

CSOs warn that government review of Administrative Law is a “cover for sweeping institutional reform”

In July 2021, the government published its response to the Independent Review of Administrative Law. Whilst the proposed changes initially appeared limited, human rights CSO Liberty said that the government is “misrepresenting the findings of an independent report and using it as a cover to introduce sweeping institutional reforms”. Liberty argues that the government plans will:

  • “Damage people’s ability to access justice and uphold their rights
  • Weaken a crucial tool to hold governments and public bodies to account
  • Erode the rule of law – and by extension undermine the UK’s democracy”

Ultimately, Liberty argues that this is an attempt by the government to place itself beyond the scrutiny of the courts, Parliament and on the streets. This comes in the context of recent processes to pass legislation that have not been subject to usual scrutiny processes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with significant efforts to crack down on protests and suppress people’s ability to be heard.

Sam Grant, Liberty head of policy and campaigns, said that civil society is extremely concerned with the way the current government is operating.

“We all want to live in a fair and equal democracy. No one should be above the law and judicial review protects that principle, allowing ordinary people to hold government and public authorities to account.”
“If judicial review is limited, we’re on a dangerous path where governments – both now and in the future – can no longer be held to account...We must be able to stand up to power, on the streets, in the courts and through the media. We must come together and challenge these alarming proposals and protect our democratic principles.”

Chilling effect on justice: Judicial and Courts bill takes power away from citizens

On 21st July 2021, the government introduced the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which proposes reforms on the rules around Judicial Review and facilitates changes to several procedures across the court system. This comes as a result of proposed changes to the Administrative Law.

The Judicial Review and Courts Bill has received criticism because it undermines the accountability for decisions taken by the government. This includes mechanisms that restrict the ability of individuals to challenge the decision-making processes of public bodies. In particular, civil society has raised the alarm on the impact that proposed changes have on marginalised or vulnerable groups. For example, the bill ends the practice which makes provision for immigration and asylum cases who have been refused appeal by the first tier and upper tribunal, to bring a judicial review case in the high court (known as Cart reviews). Charlie Whelton, Liberty’s Policy and Campaigns Officer, said:

“It appears that based on faulty statistical reasoning, this bill proposes to remove a vital safeguard that protects marginalised people, especially migrants, from mistakes being made by public bodies which could have a catastrophic impact on their lives.”

Stephanie Boyce, President of Law Society, highlighted how the society condemns these changes for having a “chilling effect on justice”, due to restrictions or the removal of redress for damages suffered by individuals who are victims of unlawful state action. Whilst many of the proposed changes are minor, the repercussions are significant, particularly when it comes to providing channels for holding decision making processes to account. The Bill awaits a second reading in Parliament, dates for which are yet to be announced.

New Bill centralises power to call general elections with Prime Minister, threatening parliament’s power

In late May 2021, the government published the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which proposed to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. This means an end to fixed term parliaments, handing the power to call general elections back to the Prime Minister of the day. CSOs have raised concerns about the legislation because of the impact it will have in terms of decreasing the power of parliament and centralising power with the Prime Minister. This is a threat to democracy because it will concentrate power with the executive, handing an inherent advantage to the ruling party. 

Peaceful Assembly

Heavy-handed policing, hundreds of arrests at Extinction Rebellion protests

Just two months ahead of COP26, Extinction Rebellion have launched a two-week series of protests in London, beginning on 23rd August 2021. Activists are demanding an immediate stop to all new fossil fuel investments and commitments to a legally binding just transition. This comes just days after the publication of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, alerting to widespread, rapid and intensifying climate change. By the fourth day of action, police arrests surpassed 200 with reports of heavy-handed policing. On Twitter, Extinction Rebellion UK reported the use of “unnecessary police violence” at Oxford Circus, with footage showing police rushing to form a cordon at the protest. Activists reported being “trampled” by police officers, with one woman’s glued hand being ripped from the woman next to her. This particular protest was a Fint (female, intersex, non-binary and trans) mobilisation, to highlight that woman are most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Bhavini Patel, an XR activist who spoke at the rally, said:

“Today’s protest is calling upon feminine energy and recognising that women’s voices are still not part of the solution and the centreing of what this emergency requires. We know that women, given the chance, know how to find the words and the power and the courage that’s needed to make the change that’s needed for humanity.”

These policing tactics set a dangerous precedent, should the controversial Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing bill pass its second reading in the coming weeks, proposing to grant police even greater powers to crack down on protests and an increase in penalties for protesters. 

Controversial Policing Bill set to return to House of Lords for final vote in September

On 14th September 2021, the controversial Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing bill will be debated in the House of Lords during its second reading. Whilst the government argues that the bill will strengthen law and order, critics have argued that it is a grave attack on fundamental rights. The 300-page bill contains various clauses that restrict the right to protest and have serious repercussions for minority groups, including gypsy and traveller communities and people of colour.

As previously reported, on 15th March 2021, a day before the second reading of the bill in parliament, over 150 CSOs sent a letter to ministers raising the alarm on the bill’s attack on fundamental rights. However, parliament proceeded to pass the policing bill the following day. This sparked massive protests across the UK, resulting in several clashes with police, most notably in Bristol where protesters experienced heavy handed police tactics resulting in several injuries.

A recent parliamentary report revealed that police caused or exacerbated public disorder by attacking peaceful protesters in Bristol. Meanwhile, protesters are facing jail time for their part in the protests, with over 78 arrests and three already in prison. A group of 700 academics also expressed opposition to the policing bill, and opposition MPs and peers warned that the bill could result in the criminalisation of peaceful demonstrations.

During the summer period, civil society mobilisation has continued, with a group of CSOs including Liberty, 38 Degrees, 350.org, Friends of the Earth, Global Justice Now and Greenpeace submitting a petition to parliament in July 2021, signed by over half a million people. As the second reading of the bill in the House of Lords approaches, European organisations are once again alerting to the rights violations and negative impact of the policing bill. Further protests are anticipated should the policing bill pass its second reading in the House of Lords on 14th September 2021.

Expression

Facial recognition surveillance cameras threaten right to privacy and target protesters

In an open letter, Privacy International and 30 organisations have criticised the Home Office for “bypassing” Parliament on the use of facial recognition technology, calling for its immediate ban. One year after a landmark ruling in which judges found that UK recognition technology breaches privacy rights, CSOs have raised concerns over the Home Office’s quiet roll-out of facial recognition surveillance, now used by police forces and private companies, with the Metropolitan Police planning to roll it out across the capital also. The surveillance tool actively takes ‘faceprints’ of millions of people, often without them knowing. There have been reports of it being used in concerts, stadiums, supermarkets and shopping centres, in addition to during protests. Data is compared to images on watch lists, which include images of people not wanted by the police, with images drawn from anywhere, including social media. The lack of safeguards governing where the technology is used and who is on the watch list raises major concerns for the right to privacy and non-discrimination. Mark Johnson, Legal & Policy Officer at Big Brother Watch said:

“One of the concerns of facial recognition technology is that it fundamentally violates the right to privacy…it will create a major shift in the relationship between the citizen and the state, really changing the presumption of innocence. It will turn our high streets into police line-ups.”

Emmanuelle Andrews, Policy and Campaigns Officer at Liberty, said:

“Whatever our background or beliefs, we all want to feel safe and be able to go about our lives freely. Facial recognition undermines these ideals.”

Both organisations are petitioning the Home Secretary for an outright ban on the use of facial recognition technology.

Report reveals use of hidden algorithms to screen, monitor and profile recipients of benefits

CSO Big Brother Watch has published the results of a nine-month investigation in their Poverty Panopticon report, revealing that councils are conducting mass profiling and citizen scoring of welfare and social care recipients, via the use of hidden algorithms, to predict fraud, rent non-payments and major life events. Amongst the findings, the investigation revealed that over 540,000 benefit applicants were secretly assigned fraud risk scores by councils’ algorithms before being able to access housing benefits or council tax support. Another 1,6 million people living in social housing also had their data processed by algorithms to predict non-rent payments, and three million housing benefit recipients have been risk profiled by the Department for Work and Pensions. Serious questions are being raised regarding whether the system breaks anti-discrimination laws, with significant concerns around the targeting of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds who are treated with “suspicion and prejudice”.

Jake Hurfurt, Head of Research and Investigations at Big Brother Watch, said:

“Our welfare data investigation has uncovered councils using hidden algorithms that are secretive, unevidenced, incredibly invasive and likely discriminatory.
“The scale of the profiling, mass data gathering and digital surveillance that millions of people are unwittingly subjected to is truly shocking. We are deeply concerned that these risk scoring algorithms could be disadvantaging and discriminating against Britain’s poor.”

Freedom of Information requests

Based on details received from a FOI request, Open Democracy revealed that the FOI policy used by the Met Police targets journalists - among other actors - for special treatment. The guidance system used by police suggests that questions from journalists and MPs "have the potential to cause significant harm" and that "any request involving an identified member of the Media" must be referred through the system. Met Police staff dealing with FOIs are told: “You MUST obtain approval from DPA [Directorate of Public Affairs] / Press Liaison… before release if this request is from a journalist or identified as high risk.” Thus, the police force has been labelling FOI requests about sensitive issues and those from journalists and MPs as "high profile" instead of taking a neutral “applicant blind” approach. Among those requests identified as high risk were related to protests by Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. Silkie Carlo, director of the campaign group Big Brother Watch, told Open Democracy:

“This shocking discovery shows the Met Police is building lists of journalists and rights campaigners who ask difficult questions. This is a serious failure of the Met to meet its obligations to process FOI requests fairly, objectively and anonymously and is likely to have a chilling effect.”

Threats against journalists

  • Newsquest Cumbria group editor Vanessa Sims reported that defamatory comments and threats of violence had been made on social media and sent directly to a Mail reporter “simply for doing her job”. In May 2021, reporter Amy Fenton faced threats of physical and sexual violence online, with alleged threats made against her daughter.
  • On 23rd June 2021, journalist Camilla Tominey posted on Twitter a screenshot of a message containing death threats she has received on her website. Tominey, who is an award-winning journalist and associate editor at the Telegraph covering politics and royals, believes that the death threat came from a fan of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Further insulting messages were posted on Twitter using #CamillaTomineyIsALiar.
  • During this period, journalists also faced threats during anti-vaccine protests. On 23rd August 2021, police had to escort Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow, after he was chased into one of the headquarters of ITV and Channel 4 and 5 News's side entrances by protesters. This comes after more than 100 anti-covid vaccination protesters stormed ITN headquarters where news programmes for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are produced. Protesters were blaming journalists for promoting so-called vaccine passports. On 28th August 2021, journalist Phillip Norton and other media workers for BBC Look North were also subjected to intimidation and threats by a group of anti-vaccine protesters. One man with a megaphone threatened to hang the journalist, while others hurled insults at the crew.

Proposals for secrecy law threat to journalists

The Home Office is currently consulting on new proposals to update the existing Official Secrets and Espionage laws. According to the government, the proposed “Legislation to counter state threats” aims to "improve" the ability of the state to protect official data. However, concerns have been raised about the blurring of distinction between whistleblowing, journalism and spying. Whistleblowers and journalists would face the same jail sentences as foreign agents - a maximum penalty for receiving leaked material would be 14 years instead of two. In addition, protection against police inspections of journalistic material would be watered down, giving this power of authorising search warrants to the police superintendent rather than the courts. General secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Michelle Stanistreet said:

"We remain fundamentally opposed to any moves by the state that would make it harder to report on national security or pose harsher penalties for journalists, their sources and whistle-blowers.”